Observe Together to Deepen Professional Learning

Collaboration can be shallow or deep, a way to maintain business as usual, or a driver for collective change. To go deep together with the collective trust and courage essential for asking and acting on tough questions, we need to get specific with shared experiences and shared data. Otherwise, our conversations about goals, where students are in relation to the goals, and effective instruction hinges on our diverse biases and perspectives. We share ideas. We hear what we know. We miss a valuable opportunity to help one another expand our thinking and practice.” (Singer, 2015, p. 13)

Data Beyond the Page

Traditionally in professional learning communities, teachers collaborate to analyze students’ written work or assessment results. This is valuable when the goal is to improve written work and assessments, yet limited when we aim to improve student learning in an area that is difficult to measure with a testable task. Consider, for example, the evidence educators need to see to understand and improve student learning in the following areas:

  • Initiative and risk taking
  • Problem solving
  • Collaboration
  • Oral academic language development
  • Academic discourse skills

The data for these and other goals important for twenty-first century success live in dynamic moments of learning and classroom interactions. We learn what students know and can do by watching and listening. We gather formative data by asking questions such as the following:

  • What do students say?
  • How do they interact?
  • How do they approach a challenge? What do they do next?
  • What do their quotes and actions tell us about their thinking and how they learn?
  • What does this data tell us about the impact of our instruction on learning?
  • How do shifts in the nuances of how we teach impact what students say and do?

Asking these questions at the edge of student learning help us get specific together in ways that move our edge of learning as a profession. The problem is that, when it comes to interpreting the formative data of what students say and do, most teachers go it alone.

Opening Doors

In many schools, there is a culture of privacy about teaching. Even when educators are highly collaborative in PLC meetings, Twitter chats, workshops, or other contexts, we usually teach behind closed doors. This is a problem when we want to get specific together in ways that deepen our understanding of our students, and the nuances of effective instruction to meet their needs.

Deep professional learning that challenges assumptions and changes practice doesn’t happen through talk alone. We must have the courage to collaborate through action in classrooms together: testing approaches and gathering observational data about the impact of our instructional moves.

To collaborate deeply about difficult-to-assess skills—many of which are the most important skills for twenty-first century success—we must move professional learning into the classroom. We must dare make collaborative those moments of uncertainty when we push the edge of possibility—and a lesson may or may not go as planned. This requires trust, a mindset for inquiry, and courageous collaboration.

How do we open doors to bring professional learning into the classroom? Stay tuned for next week’s blog : 7 Ways to Build Trust for Observation-Based Professional Learning


Citation: Singer, T. W. (2015). Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin Press.

Photo by Klic Video Productions Inc.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.

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